Duccio di Buoninsegna
Painter, and founder of the Sienese School, b. about 1255 or 1260, place not known; d. August 3, 1319
Duccio di Buoninsegna, painter, and founder of the Sienese School, b. about 1255 or 1260, place not known; d. August 3, 1319. About this time Siena was at the zenith of her political power. She had just defeated Florence on the field of Montaperti (September 4, 1260), and an era of marvellous development followed this conquest. Then was begun the huge task of building the cathedral, where, in 1266, was commenced the incomparable pulpit sculptured by Nicholas of Pisa, and it was under these flourishing conditions that Duccio received his artistic education. However, he owed nothing to the Gothic style nor to the naturalistic renaissance of Nicholas of Pisa: he allied himself exclusively with Byzantine tradition. Duccio has been called the “Last of the Greeks”, and his genius consisted in giving exquisite expression to the refined sentiment of the masters of Byzantium, discovering its original meaning despite the barbarous, hideous imitations made by a degenerate school.
Duccio is first mentioned in 1278, when he was engaged upon minor work, such as painting the coffers of the archives and the tablettes (memorandum-books) of the Biccherna, one of them for the year 1293 now in the Industrial Museum of Berlin. But his great work at this time was the famous “Madonna de’ Ruccellai “—one of the most illustrious specimens of Italian painting—preserved at Florence in a side-chapel of Santa Maria Novella and, on the authority of Vasari, so long considered one of Cimabue’s masterpieces. But that the painting was Duccio’s is now beyond question, as Milanesi has published the text of a contract drawn up for this picture, April 15, 1285, between the artist and the rectors of the Confraternity of the Virgin. Although still hieratical and archaic, Duccio’s “Madonna”, when compared, for instance, with that of Guido of Siena, painted in 1221 and shown today in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena, seems fully to deserve its celebrity.
But it was in 1311 that Duccio achieved his principal work, the glory of which is destined to remain traditional, the great reredos for the high altar of the Siena cathedral. This panel, removed in the fifteenth century, may now be seen in the museum of the Opera del Duomo. The day of its installation was observed as a public feast; shops were closed and bells were rung and the people of the city, carrying lighted candles, solemnly escorted the picture from the artist’s residence at the Porta Stalloreggi to the cathedral. This painting was indeed a national masterpiece and in this regard is comparable only to the reredos by Van Eyck in Flemish painting. The two sides represent the two Testaments of the school. The back comprises twenty-six scenes from the life of Jesus between the entry into Jerusalem and the Ascension. The steps, now taken apart, were decorated with twenty other scenes representing Christ’s childhood, and His miracles, and the life of the Virgin. In fact, the theme was the same as that treated by Giotto in 1305 in the Arena of Padua. But Duccio consulted Byzantine formularies only, and his compositions resemble the famous miniatures of the “Evangelistarium” of Rossano, or those of the great Benedictine school of Mont’ Amiata. However, apart from his perfect taste in color and in style, Duccio excelled in the essentially Greek elegance of his portrayal of ordinary life. He abounds in genre pictures as pure as some of the selections in the Anthology. The scene of “Peter before the High-Priest“, the dialogue of the holy women with the angel at the Sepulchre, and the “Pilgrims of Emmaus” are models of poetic conception expressed in a familiar, true-to-life, lyric fashion. On the front of the great panel is the “Madonna Maestà” (Majesty), which is in reality the “Madonna de’ Ruccellai” more amply, richly, and harmoniously developed. Never did Byzantine painting attain greater plasticity of expression. But here the form is animated by a new sentiment, a tenderness that manifests itself in the distich engraved on the step of the Virgin’s throne:
MATER SANCTA DEI, SIS CAUSSA SENIS REQUIEI
SIS DUCCIO VITA, TE QUTA PINXIT ITA.
Duccio painted only frame (and panel) pictures and, without doubt, miniatures, and hence the oblivion into which he fell in a country where monumental painting alone is glorified. Nevertheless his is the first of the great names in Italian painting. He preceded Giotto by a score of years and had the honor of founding an original Sienese school at a time when there were as yet no painters in Florence: since, in 1285, it was to him that the Florentines had to have recourse. And the most magnificent work of the Sienese School, the “Maestà” by Simone di Martino, in the Palazzo Pubblico (1315) is but an enlargement of Duccio’s. His type of beauty and his poetic ideal were indelibly impressed upon this charming school. Duccio seems to have been gay and light-hearted. In 1313 he was imprisoned for debt and at another time fined for refusing to mount guard. Some of his lesser works are preserved in various collections in the Siena Museum, the National Gallery, London, and at Windsor.